Tuesday, August 23, 2016

2016 Rio Olympics: Just because ...

Fireworks exploded during the Closing Ceremonies
for the Summer Olympic Games at Maracanã Stadium
in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Sunday night.

Every four years I fall in love with the Summer Olympic Games.

Just because.

It goes beyond just the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

NPR sports commentator Frank Deford once observed that the Olympics are "like an independent movie with foreign actors you've never heard of." Further, he said, it's quite all right if we "cheer for people you've never heard of in a sport you don't care about just because."

David Rudisha of Kenya won the men's 800-meter run.
During the Rio fortnight that just concluded Sunday night, in addition to rooting for American athletes like the swimmer Michael Phelps and Simone Biles, and for the American teams in basketball and volleyball to win and do well, I found myself:

• Urging on Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, such as David Rudisha and Almaz Ayana, who moved so gracefully about the track, excelling in the middle and long distances. Rudisha became the first male runner to successful defend his 800-meter gold since 1964 while Ayana shattered the women's 10,000-meter world record by 14 seconds.

Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands
displays her gymnastics gold medal.
• Cheering on a Dutch gymnast, Sanne Wevers, from the Netherlands, who steadied herself on the four-inch-wide balance beam and flawlessly performed a gold-medal routine. In doing so, she became the first Dutch gymnast to earn an individual medal of any color.

• Applauding a South African sprinter, Wayde van Niekerk, who broke a 17-year-old world record in winning the 400-meter run, then seeing the priceless joy expressed by his coach, a white-haired, 74-year-old grandmother named Ans Botha, who sat in the stands with van Niekerk's mother, watching over her pupil with admiration, confidence and enthusiasm.

• Smiling for the charismatic host Brazilian men's and women's football teams, with their iconic one-named stars like Neymar Jr. and Marta, as they provided their country with many thrills, none bigger than Neymar's decisive penalty kick that clinched the gold medal for Brazil over Germany.

• And, I think everyone around the world cheered for Jamaica's Usain Bolt as he once again ran faster than anyone in the world in collecting three gold medals in athletics for the third consecutive Olympics.

Malek Jaziri of Tunisia competed in the
Olympic Tennis Event.
Also, thanks to having a lot of Facebook friends from Tunisia, I rooted for their country's athletes like Malek Jaziri (tennis), Habiba Ghribi (athletics), Ines Boubakri (fencing) and Oussama Mellouli (indoor and outdoor swimming) to do well. This proud North African nation collected three bronze medals, earned in fencing, taekwondo and wrestling.

Closer to home, I thrilled in cheering for the United States on the basketball court, in the swimming pool, in the gymnastics arena and on the Olympic Stadium running track throughout the past two weeks. I ached for Kerri Walsh-Jennings, whose quest for a fourth consecutive gold medal in beach volleyball was dashed by Brazil, but delighted in seeing her and teammate April Ross rebound the next night to win a bronze medal. They were elated and so was I. The same goes for the U.S. women's indoor volleyball team, arguably the best women's volleyball team in the world. After going through pool play undefeated and winning their quarterfinal-round match, they stumbled against Serbia in the semifinals. Their gold-medal hopes were broken, but the Americans regrouped nicely to win the bronze medal with a satisfying four-set win over the Netherlands – and they were beaming with their bronze medals around their necks on the awards platform. Sometimes, medals can be color-blind. It's the thrill of achievement, sometimes under adversity, that we'll remember years from now.

Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first American woman
of Muslim faith to compete wearing a hijab.
The late American poet Maya Angelou, who wrote about diversity and inclusion throughout her distinguished lifetime, once observed: "We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color."

Swimmer Simone Manuel became the first African-American
woman to win an individual swimming gold medal.
I was so very proud to see the swimmer Simone Manuel break a color barrier in becoming the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming gold medal, when she tied for first with Canada's Penny Oleksiak in the 100-meter freestyle, setting an Olympic record along the way.

Afterward, Manual said the gold medal wasn't just for her. "It was for people that came before me and inspired me to stay in the sport. For people who believe that they can't do it, I hope I'm an inspiration to others to get out there and try swimming. You might be pretty good at it."

I was just as proud of American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad for being the first American woman of Muslim faith to wear a hijab while competing in the Olympics. There were many other first set during the Rio Games – most of them positive – and I applaud those nations who won gold medals for the first time, including: Singapore (swimming), Vietnam (air pistol), Kosovo (judo), Fiji (rugby sevens) and Puerto Rico (tennis).

The Parade of flags during Sunday's closing ceremonies.
Throughout this Olympic fortnight, the host nation Brazil displayed for the world to see why they are a sports-loving country.

I found myself rooting for athletes from around the world I had never heard of in sports that rarely receive any mention in my country like team handball, judo, and weightlifting.

Just because ... just because I cared enough to want to. And it was fun.

Photos: A variety of sources was used for the photographs included in this blog post.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Falling in love with the Olympics, again and again

Opening ceremonies at the 2016 Rio Summer Games were full of color.

Every four years, many of us fall in love with the Summer Olympic Games.

Count me among them.

Last Friday, the athletes of the world representing 207 nations gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – the country for Carnival – for the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games. At times, it resembled a giant street party complete with samba, funk, passinho and maracatu. 

Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima lit the
Olympic cauldron on Friday night.
It's time to fall in love, again.

The French educator Pierre de Coubertin, who was most responsible for the revival of the Modern Olympic Games in 1894, once said: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well."

While there's much focus in my country – the United States of America – on celebrated athletes such as the swimmer Michael Phelps, the basketball player Kevin Durant and the soccer (football to the rest of the Olympic world) player Carli Lloyd, to name just a few, I find just as much joy in rooting for the lesser-known Olympians – especially those from other countries who might have overcome an obstacle or hardship to be able to compete. For instance: 

• Swimmer Yusra Mardini, an 18-year-old Syrian refugee representing the Olympic Refugee Team, had to swim for her life just last summer when – on her journey to safety after fleeing her homeland – the boat she was in started to sink. Along with her sister, both trained swimmers, she jumped out and pushed the boat for three and a half hours until it safely reached the Greek island of Lesbos. "I want to represent all the refugees because I want to show everyone that, after the pain, after the storm, comes calm days." 

Mardini's personal story is remarkable and one we should all spend time learning more about. 

Jamaica's Toni-Ann Williams and her coach Justin Howell
enjoy a happy moment during the gymnastics competition.
• Closer to home, there's Toni-Ann Williams, 20, a young gymnast from the University of California, Berkeley, with dual U.S.-Jamaican citizenship, whom I've watched thrive collegiately the past two seasons. She was born in Maryland of Jamaican parents. Williams is Jamaica's lone representative in the women's gymnastics competition – in fact she is Jamaica's first gymnast in Olympic history – and the reason I woke up at 5:45 a.m. Pacific Time Sunday morning to watch a live video stream of her Olympic competition on my iPad.

I wouldn't have missed it for anything. 

With a score of 50.966 in the all-around qualification, Williams placed 54th, which wasn't high enough to advance to Tuesday's final competition. Still, it didn't diminish her Olympics enthusiasm. "I am very, very excited," she said afterward during an interview with a Jamaican journalist. "I'm happy to represent Jamaica. I gave it my all. Hopefully, my performance today can be a trailblazer for the kids to keep the program going in Jamaica."

Egypt fielded its first women's beach volleyball team in Rio.
• On Sunday, history was also made as Nada Meawad and Noaa Elghobashy became the first women's beach volleyball pair from Egypt to compete in the Olympics. They were easily recognized by their long pants and sleeves – compared to the standard bikini uniforms worn by most countries – and Elghobashy wears a hijab. She never gave it a thought. "I've worn the hijab for 10 years," said Elghobashy after competing on the Copacabana venue against Germany. "It doesn't keep me away from the things I love to do and beach volleyball is one of them." The Egyptian duo lost to Germany 21-12, 21-15.

As Herb Elliott, the Australian middle-distance runner who won a gold medal in the 1,500 meters at the 1960 Rome Olympics, once said: "It is the inspiration of the Olympic Games that drives people not only to compete but to improve, and to bring lasting spiritual and moral benefits to the athlete and inspiration to those lucky enough to witness the athletic dedication."

And that brings us to the story of Sarah Attar.

Sarah Attar marched in the Opening Ceremonies of the
2012 London Games representing Saudi Arabia.
Four years ago, an Olympic milestone was achieved at the 2012 London Games as the first woman track and field (athletics) athlete representing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia competed. Sarah Attar, then 19, born in the United States of a Saudi father and an American mother and who bolds dual citizenship, ran last in her heat of the 800 meters.

A cross-country runner at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, where she studied art, history and graphic design, the 5-foot-5-inch, 115-pound Attar finished her 800-meter heat in 2 minutes 44.95 seconds, about 41 seconds behind the first-place finisher. I remember watching her performance on TV. It brought tears of joy just to see her finish. It didn't matter that her time was the slowest of any 800-meter runner. 

Attar said she wanted to represent Saudi Arabia at the Olympics as a way of inspiring women. "This is such a huge honor and an amazing experience, just to be representing the women," said Attar after the conclusion of her race. "I know that this can make a huge difference."

Sarah Attar competed in London wearing a white hijab and
a black and green track suit that covered her arms and legs.
Attar competed while attired in a white hijab and a black and green track suit that covered her arms and legs. She received a standing ovation from many in the crow at Olympic Stadium as she crossed the finish line alone, well behind the others in her heat.

Fast forward to 2016. "A lot has changed since then," Attar said in an article she wrote for Marie Claire. "Oiselle, an athletic apparel company for women, sponsors me, and I am living and training full-time with an elite group of distance runners in Mammoth Lakes, California."

Now 23, Attar is back at the Olympic Games in Rio, once again representing Saudi Arabia, along with three other Saudi female athletes – all who train outside of the country due to government and religious restrictions placed upon females competing in sports. However, this time, Attar will compete in the Olympic marathon instead of the 800 meters, a distance (42195 kilometers / 26.219 miles) she feels she is better suited to run. Her personal best in the marathon is 3 hours 11 minutes 27 seconds, which she ran at the 2015 Chicago Marathon. The Olympic women's marathon will be run on August 14.

"The marathon is such a beautiful challenge,"
says Sarah Attar.
"The marathon is such a beautiful challenge and I am really diving into marathon training to see what I am capable of at this distance," Attar told Like the Wind magazine.

In a recent Washington Post feature, Attar's coach, Andrew Kastor, credited her with "the right amount of spirit and courage I see in most seasoned and mature marathon racers," and with eagerness as "a student of the sport, learning all she can from her mentors on the team."

In the same article, Attar said: "The Olympics was always what these amazing, elite athletes do, that I just watch on TV, and I observe, and then to be a part of it, where I never would have anticipated that in my life was just, like, so wild."

Sarah Attar will compete in the women's
marathon on Sunday.
More and more, Attar has begun to realize her place in history. 

"There is a whole generation of girls in Saudi Arabia who now have a female Olympic role model to look up to – that didn't exist before. 

"They'll grow up knowing that competing in the Olympics is a possibility, and that's what means the most to me," said Attar, in a recent Firstpost.com story. 

May the next two weeks be filled with friendship, respect, good sportsmanship and fair play. May it be a peaceful gathering of nations. May it be filled with many new stories to share in the years to come. 

After all, every Olympic athlete is a winner in our hearts.

Photos: Courtesy of Google images. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Mr. Trump and a lesson in American citizenship

On Tuesday morning, I woke up to the headline "Mr. Trump and Spineless Republicans," at the top of The New York Times editorial page. In its opinion, The Times wrote: "Just when it seems that Donald Trump could not display more ignorance and bad judgment or less of a moral compass, he comes up with another ignominy or two. This weekend he denigrated the parents of a fallen American military hero and suggested that if elected he might recognize Russia's claims to Ukraine and end sanctions.

"Mr. Trump's divisive views helped him capture the Republican presidential nomination. And even as he creates a political whirlwind with each utterance, leading members of his own party haven't the spine to rescind  their support. Sure, some have come out with strong criticisms, but none have gone far enough. Repudiation of his candidacy is the only principled response."

As the 2016 presidential campaign came into full focus following last week's historic nomination of Hillary Clinton as the first female to be nominated for president by a major political party, I have followed with great interest the fallout from Donald Trump's crude derision of the parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, a Muslim American who was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart after he was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2004. It's drawing around-the-clock attention by 24-hour cable news broadcasters like MSNBC, CNN and Fox News as well as making daily headlines in national newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post. In today's Times editorial, it called Trump's statements towards the fallen soldier's parents "deplorable and mystifying" and asked: "Why would a presidential candidate mock the parents of a soldier who died in combat?"

Khizr Khan, father of a deceased Muslim American soldier, offered Donald J. Trump
his copy of the U.S. Constitution during a speech at the Democratic National
Convention in Philadelphia last Thursday. Standing beside Mr. Khan is
his wife, Ghazala, mother of the fallen soldier.

It is said that words, like eyes, are the windows into a person's soul. Last week, Captain Khan's father, Khizr Khan, along with his wife Ghazala Khan, standing by his side, were highly critical of Mr. Trump for proposing to ban Muslim immigration to the United States. In a speech to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last Thursday, Mr. Khan accused Mr. Trump of having made no sacrifices for his country. He spoke moments before Mrs. Clinton formally accepted her party's nomination.

In a tribute to his fallen son, the 66-year-old Mr. Khan spoke passionately of his son's character, his faith, and his patriotism. In doing so, this Muslim American father's electrifying speech turned into a lesson in American citizenship. There was no denying that Mr. Khan was being sincere while showing his undivided loyalty to his country.

The elder Khan, an immigration lawyer with an advanced degree from Harvard Law School, became a United States citizen after he emigrated from Pakistan in 1980. You see, he came to America seeking a better life for his family. Along with his wife, the Khans raised three sons, the middle one who would become a hero in death. The Khan family resides in Charlottesville, Va.

Army captain Humayun Khan, 27, died while serving his country – the United States – in combat in Iraq on June 8, 2004. He became a victim of a suicide car bombing while trying to protect the other troops in his unit. In my research, I learned that Khan had graduated from the University of Virginia and had been accepted into law school. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father. However, he deferred his admission to serve our country before continuing his education.

In speaking to the DNC audience – and by extension to a worldwide audience – Khizr Khan "gave a voice to Muslim Americans outraged by the anti-Muslim pronouncements of the Republican nominee for president, Donald J. Trump," wrote The New York Times.

It should come as no surprise that Mr. Trump's call for restrictions on Muslims entering the U.S. is acutely personal for Mr. Khan. And, it's something that has become a recurring talking point between me and many of my Muslim Facebook friends, most whom reside in Tunisia. They are puzzled by what is going on in the U.S. While most of them realize that Trump's sentiments are not shared by most Americans – including me – and goes against the ideals and values that have helped shape my country's democracy, they are shocked and disturbed that Mr. Trump could be calling for a blanket restriction on Muslim immigration – solely on the basis on religious grounds.

In December, Mr. Trump called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on."

In speaking about his deceased son with his wife standing his side, the bereaved Mr. Khan said during his speech: "If it was up to Donald Trump, he never would have been in America." Under Trump's proposed policies, the younger Khan would have never served his country because he and his family would have been barred from entering the United States.

The elder Khan said Mr. Trump "wants to build walls and ban us from this country."

"Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery?" Mr. Khan asked Mr. Trump. "Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one."

Mr. Khan's remarks reverberated inside and beyond the Wells Fargo Arena where he spoke to an attentive DNC audience. Then, the moment that turned Mr. Khan into a social media phenomenon – and has been shown countless number of times on TV over the past few days – happened. Staring unwaveringly at the television camera, he passionately spoke: "Let me ask you: Have you even read the United States Constitution?" said Mr. Khan. "I will gladly lend you my copy." Addressing Mr. Trump directly (which the intolerant Trump later called "a vicious attack" in a series of tweets), he pulled out a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution from  his coat pocket and waved it for the entire world to see. It was the emotional moment of the convention.

Mr. Khan's speech was one of the most stirring speeches I've ever heard or watched. It was heartfelt and passionate. My eyes welled with tears and I applauded several times. I'm sure I was not alone in expressing these feelings.

Beginning Saturday, Mr. Trump belittled the Khans. He implied that Mrs. Khan did not speak at the convention because her religion did not allow it, and he equated his "sacrifices" as a businessman to those of the grieving Gold Star parents. What Mr. Trump failed to realize is that he could not sacrifice without serving. "With his implication that the soldier's mother had not spoken because of female subservience expected in some traditional strains of Islam, his comments also inflamed his hostilities with American Muslims," wrote The New York Times.

"If you look at his wife, she was standing there," Trump said, in an interview with ABC News. "She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say. You tell me."

The Washington Post wrote: "Trump described (Mr.) Khan as 'very emotional' and said he 'probably looked like a nice guy to me' – then accused him of being controlled by the Clinton campaign."

Trump's response stirred outrage among critics who said the episode once again proves that Trump lacks the compassion and temperament to be president.

Over the weekend, Ezra Klein, a columnist for Vox.com, wrote: "Trump listened to a speech by the bereaved father of a fallen Muslim soldier and used it to slander the fallen soldier's family. That was his response. That is his character. ... This is the gauge of his cruelty." He called the slander "horrifying" – even for Trump. Then Klein asked: "Just what kind of person is Donald Trump? What kind of person says these things? And is that really the kind of person we want to be president?"

"There's only one way to talk about Gold Star parents: with honor and respect," Ohio governor John Kasich, a Republican Party primary rival of Mr. Trump's, wrote on Twitter, using the term for surviving family members of those who died in war. His sentiments have been echoed by many politicians.

During an interview with MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, the first of many the Khans have granted, which aired Friday night, Mrs. Khan broke down sobbing as she spoke about her son. It suggested to me – and I'm sure others – that Mrs. Khan let her husband give the convention speech for one simple reason: even though it's been 12 years since her son's death, she remains overwhelmed by grief. How can Mr. Trump not understand this? How can he not express any empathy for the fallen soldier's parents?


"Sacrifice, I don't think he knows the meaning of sacrifice, Mrs. Khan said. "Because when I was standing there, all America felt my pain. Without saying a single word. Everybody felt that pain."

In a rebuttal to Mr. Trump's disparaging remarks, Mr. Khan lashed out at the Republican Party nominee during an interview on Saturday, saying that his wife did not speak at the convention because it was too painful for her to talk about her son's death. Mr. Trump, he said, "is devoid of feeling the pain of a mother who has sacrificed her son.

"Trump is totally void of any decency because he is unaware of how to talk to a Gold Star family and how to speak to a Gold Star mother," said Mr. Khan.

On Monday morning, Mr. Trump continued to criticize Mr. Khan via Twitter. "Mr. Trump complained that Mr. Khan had become a ubiquitous presence in the news media since his speech at the convention, in which he excoriated the Republican presidential nominee," wrote The New York Times. 

"Mr. Khan who does not know me, viciously attacked me from the stage of the DNC and is now all over T.V. doing the same," Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. "Nice!"

Ibrahim Hooper, who is a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The New York Times: "It's really despicable that anyone, let alone a presidential candidate, would choose to dishonor the service of an American who gave his life for this nation."

Instead of showing any remorse for the Khans, Mr. Trump's foolish and ignorant – inhuman – comments are the latest in a continuing and disturbing pattern and serve as the latest reminder of his total unfitness for becoming President of the United States. Donald Trump is a person without a soul. He's a loud bully, a bigot. He is unaccepting of criticism and easily becomes unhinged as the events of the past few days have shown loud and clear. He lacks compassion for others and he doesn't know the meaning of empathy.

Meanwhile, acting presidential and expressing compassion and respect, Mrs. Clinton said: "I was very moved to see Ghazala Khan stand bravely and with dignity in support of her son on Thursday night. And I was very moved to hear her speak last night, bravely and with dignity, about her son's life and the ultimate sacrifice he made for his country."

Appearing on CNN's State of the Union program over the weekend, Mr. Khan expressed: "Two things are absolutely necessary in any leader or any person who aspires, wishes, to be a leader. That is moral compass and second is empathy. ... Mr. Trump is a black soul."

On Monday, Senator John McCain of Arizona, a decorated hero of the Vietnam War, sharply criticized Trump, saying: "It is time for Donald Trump to set the example for our country and the future of the Republican Party." Sadly, Sen. McClain refused to back off his support for Mr. Trump. When will he and other Republic Party leaders such as House speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell disavow Trump?

This morning, during a news conference following a joint address with the prime minister of Singapore in the East Room of the White House, President Obama gave his strongest denouncement of Mr. Trump. He said Mr. Trump is "woefully unprepared to do this job" and added that Republican criticisms of their party's presidential candidate "ring hollow" as they continue to support his bid for the presidency. Mr. Obama asked Republicans matter-of-factly: "If you are repeatedly having to say in very strong terms that what he has said is unacceptable, why are you still endorsing him? What does this say about your party, that this is your standard bearer?"


Indeed, Mr. Trump has shown time and again that he is capable of being both callous and cruel, and is unfit to be the commander in chief. He exhibits the character of a dark, dystopian dictator.

With less than 100 days until the November election, it remains to be seen how many more disgusting things Donald Trump will say that show off his ignorance and disrespect for the highest office in our country, his unfitness to be president, and his lack of empathy towards America's decent and ordinary citizens.

Sometimes, it takes a patriotic Muslim American family – one which emigrated to the United States so they could build a better life for themselves and who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country – to remind all of us of the importance of the values and ideals that shape our American democracy.

Read the full text of Khizr Khan's speech to the DNC:


Read Ghazala Khan's Washington Post Op-Ed article:


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Where do you want to live? A simple question, but ...

For the second consecutive year, Tokyo was selected No. 1 in Monocle's
Quality of Life survey.

It's no secret that the best cities in the world are ones which are vibrant and offer the best quality of life for their residents. The best city environments are those which are tolerant and open-minded, celebrate diversity, have great universities and welcome creativity.

Having quality independent bookshops, green spaces and clean streets as well as efficient transportation systems are big pluses, too.

Back in summer 2007 when Monocle was still just a few months old, the London-based monthly briefing that's become a "must-read" – and a favorite of mine – through its focus on global affairs, business, culture and design, launched its inaugural "Quality of Life" survey, naming the best global cities to call home. Munich was the first No. 1. This year, it's Tokyo reigning at the top for the second consecutive year in the 10th year that Monocle has conducted its "Quality of Life" survey. It's both a source of pride for the cities who make the top 25 list – like receiving a prestigious Michelin star – and every year seems to unearth a surprise or two or three.

Monocle: A briefing on Global Affairs,
Business, Culture & Design.
Over the years, Monocle has added new metrics that take into account both intangibles and infrastructure – from nightlight to pet-friendly parks – which have led to some dramatic changes and brought about a new world order.

"We add to the metrics each year and this time we've measured cities' nocturnal qualities too, from closing times to the places that still serve a good meal after 22.00," wrote Monocle executive editor Steve Bloomfield in a preface to this year's "Quality of Life" survey. "Despite these new metrics, when looking back over the previous surveys it's striking to see how the fundamentals of what makes a livable city have remained the same.

"Among the metrics we still count the number of murders and break-ins, and the average response times of emergency services – because if your city isn't safe it doesn't matter how many art galleries there are. We still grade cities on their transport network too, from infrastructure to cost. Cities that encourage cycling and make it cheap and easy to use public transport continue to score well. So too do those that make it easy to get away; the best cities are connected to the rest of the world. And we still judge our cities on their food, drink and retail – the quality, not just the quantity. Those with a high number of independent bookshops prosper; those with a high number of Starbucks less so."

Bloomfield concludes: "The most livable cities are safe, affordable and exciting. And that will probably still be the case in another decade's time."

While London, Paris and Rome remain three of the biggest tourist destinations in the world, their popularity doesn't necessarily translate into great places to live. Hint: none of the Big three made Monocle's top 25 cities list.

Here are Monocle's top 25 cities in this year's "Quality of Life" survey:

•  1. Tokyo, Japan
•  2. Berlin, Germany
•  3. Vienna, Austria
•  4. Copenhagen, Denmark
•  5. Munich, Germany
•  6. Melbourne, Australia
•  7. Fukuoka, Japan
•  8. Sydney, Australia
•  9. Kyoto, Japan
•10. Stockholm, Sweden
•11. Vancouver, B.C. (Canada)
•12. Helsinki, Finland
•13. Zürich, Switzerland
•14. Madrid, Spain
•15. Hamburg, Germany
•16. Lisbon, Portugal
•17. Düsseldorf, Germany
•18. Hong Kong
•19. Barcelona, Spain
•20. Singapore
•21. Amsterdam, Netherlands
•22. Auckland, New Zealand
•23. Honolulu, Hawaii (USA)
•24. Portland, Oregon (USA)
•25. Montréal, Quebec (Canada)

Of the 25 cities, I have experienced seven of them: Copenhagen, Vancouver, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Honolulu, Portland and Montréal. I've been a return visitor to Vancouver, Amsterdam and Portland numerous times and there's much to enjoy in each of these cities. Vancouver was a welcoming host for both the 2010 Olympic Winter Games and the 2015 Women's World Cup football championships and I'm glad to have experienced both events as well as both winter and summer weather in Vancouver.

In justifying Tokyo's No. 1 ranking, Monocle wrote: "... the city's round-the-clock economy is a key feature that makes it one of the most attractive places to live and visit. With a conveniently located international airport open 24 hours a day, bookshops that open at 07.00 and close at 04.00, and restaurants and shops that never close, Tokyo recognizes the pull of being open all hours."

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Summer: Solstice, sunsets and strawberry moons

We are just three days into summer, a time of the year that means happy times and good sunshine. For a northern Californian, like me, it might mean sneaking away for a picnic in Muir Woods or a day at AT&T Park watching the Giants. But, if you're a southern Californian, the choices include tanning on the beach, escaping to Disneyland, or just having fun watching summer blockbusters at the local cineplex. Regardless of where you might be, summers are meant for being happy.

Here are some early summer thoughts I posted on my Facebook page over the past few days, illustrated with some choice photographs that I took:

On the eve of the Full Strawberry Moon.

Summer solstice eve: As the summer solstice arrives on Monday, so, too, does a Full Strawberry Moon – together for the first time in nearly 70 years. Although it is still Sunday night in California, tonight's moon to this casual observer looks to be very full – and beautiful, too.

Summer flowers in our backyard garden.

Thoughts on the official first day of summer: "Summer afternoon summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language." – Henry James

Capturing summer's first sunset.

Thoughts about sunsets as summer welcomes its first sunset: "Sunset is a wonderful opportunity for us to appreciate all the great things the sun gives us!" – Mehmet Murat idan, contemporary Turkish playwright and novelist.

A colorful Full Strawberry Moon accented by the clouds.

Finally, as the summer solstice even arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area of northern California, so, too, did the Full Strawberry Moon. Despite some clouds, it was a colorful and entertaining full moon, both to look at and as well as to photograph.

Looking forward to a wonderful and rewarding summer.

Photographs: By Michael Dickens © 2016.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Paul Simon: Still creative after all these years

Paul Simon / Feeling groovy late in the evening.

Paul Simon's 13th solo album, Stranger to Stranger, is just out to critical acclaim, and following two recent weekend concerts at UC-Berkeley's Greek Theater, the 74-year-old singer/songwriter stopped by City Arts & Lectures in San Francisco last week for an insightful conversation with Dave Eggers that was a benefit for the writer's 826 Valencia project.

For over 90 minutes, Simon, whom New Yorker critic Kelefa Sanneh recently labeled as "one of the most accomplished overthinkers in the history of popular music," spoke both thoughtfully and haltingly about a variety of things, including: his new album, a series of songs filled with experiments in rhythm and texture throughout its lithe 37-minute duration; his creative process; his approach to writing music and composing lyrics that paint an imperfect world; and the emotional outpouring from singing "The Boxer" on the same night as Muhammad Ali's death, just moments after learning of The Greatest's passing.

As Simon spoke about the physics of sound – "the tone of the universe is a slightly flat B-flat" – he also strummed a faux air guitar, picking at the melody with his right hand and moving the fingers of his left hand up and down his imaginary fretboard. Later on, he reached for a guitar positioned behind his chair to illustrate a chord progression as he crooned the notes to a song.

On Stranger to Stranger, Simon's collaborators include the Italian electronic producer Clap! Clap! and long-dead composer and inventor Harry Partch, whose variety of homemade instruments contributed to the texture and dreamlike ambience of the album.


On "The Werewolf," for instance, Stereogum.com, writes: "Warped banjo, hand claps, and intricate down-home percussion are interjected with peculiar invest bursts. Simon soulfully warns of a werewolf's impending approach with some vivid storytelling and irresistible melodies."

Always a storyteller, Simon shared a funny anecdote about a 2004 Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert that he and his former music partner Art Garfunkel gave on the grounds of the Rome Colosseum. He said that while Garfunkel was singing an extended solo, Simon gazed out at nearby residents listening from their apartment balconies while thinking to himself, "I wonder what an apartment like that would cost?" He also talked about his 1986 ground-breaking album Graceland, and waxed about what it's been like being in the midst of a late-career renaissance.

"He has managed to become neither a wizened oracle nor an oldies act, and his best songs convey the appealing sensation of listening to a guy who is still trying to figure out what he's doing," wrote Sanneh in his New Yorker article, "Cool Papa," published last month.

Paul Simon and Dave Eggers / Old friends.
"Ain't no song like an old song," Simon once wrote, and the New York native has been practicing his craft for the past 50 years, releasing a new album about every three years or so. Although Simon said he doesn't keep up with the latest music trends and hits, he remains an attentive listener with a curious mind, one who always is collecting raw ingredients and rhythms for the future. Writing music, he noted, gets harder.

"But harder is fine. It's not like harder is the opposite of fun."

By night's end, Simon broke out an acoustic guitar and sang "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy)," which served as a nice bookend. He left to a standing ovation from the mostly Baby Boomer audience at The Nourse.

It all made for a memorable and enjoyable evening.

Photos: By Michael Dickens © 2016.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

At Roland Garros, Djokovic and his quest both embraced

Novak Djokovic / Kissing the Coupe, basking in the glory of tennis history.

What more could you ask for – No. 1 playing No. 2, Novak Djokovic versus Andy Murray. At stake was an opportunity for one player to be the first in 47 years to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once, while for the other it was a chance to be the first British male player since Fred Perry in 1935 to be champion of Roland Garros. Neither had won the French Open before. On Sunday, one of them would win, and when they did, they would get to hoist the Coupe de Mousquetaires, one of the great and exciting moments in tennis.

Pour le gagnant va la Coupe. À votre santé!

At Roland Garros, the Parisian crowd
loves to embrace its winners.
As evening began to fall over Court Philippe Chatrier, it became apparent to everyone witnessing the spectacle in person as well as to a world-wide television audience that this Grand Slam was Djokovic's to win. After losing in the final three of the last four years, Djokovic finally had reason to feel joyous. He finally got to experience the thrill of victory instead of the agony of defeat when he beat Murray, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4, to win the title.

When the last point had been played, Djokovic became the eighth man to complete a career Grand Slam in tennis – and the first since the iconic Rod Laver of Australia in 1969 to hold all four of the Grand Slam singles titles at the same time – when he won the 2016 French Open. Call it a Djoker Slam, if you wish. Soon, he used his tennis racquet to create a heart in the clay, then promptly lay down inside of it spread eagle, happy, and smiling all the while.

"It's a very special day, perhaps the biggest moment of my career," Djokovic, a 29-year-old from Serbia, said in French to what New York Times tennis columnist Christopher Clarey described as "the tough-to-conquer Parisian crowd that had gradually come to embrace him and his quest."

In witnessing Djokovic's historic four-set victory over Murray, Clarey wrote of the World No. 1: "He is quite a conundrum for the opposition with his elastic ground strokes, big serve and world-class returns. He can make a tennis court look dauntingly cramped as you face him across the net."

Gracious in defeat, Murray, the No. 2 seed from Great Britain, said of Djokovic: "This is his day today. What he's achieved in the last 12 months is phenomenal. Winning all four of the Grand Slams in one year is an amazing achievement. it's something that is so rare in tennis. You know it's not happened for an extremely long time, and it's going to take a long time for it to happen again. Everyone here who came to watch is extremely lucky to see it."

The champion and the Coupe / Djokovic enjoys
the day after in Paris.
Each year in late spring, the French Open in Paris serves as a grading period – a report card if you will – for professional tennis. It's the second of the year's four Grand Slam events – the others are the Australian Open in January, Wimbledon in late June and the U.S. Open in August near the end of summer  – and all the big names in men's professional tennis except 17-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer, seeded third, who pulled out with a back injury, came to famed Roland Garros to complete for the Coupe.

Soon after, No. 4 seed Rafael Nadal, himself the owner of 14 Grand Slam titles – including nine at Roland Garros – pulled out just before his third-round match with an injury to his left wrist that he developed coming into the tournament. His status for Wimbledon remains uncertain. So, it was left to Djokovic and Murray, among the Big Four, to carry on the fight to the end while dodging many rain delays – and worthy opponents, including last year's champion Stan Wawrinka – along the way during the second week of the fortnight. To the amazement of many, both the men's final as well as the women's final the day before, won by Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain in a huge upset over Serena Williams of the U.S., went on as scheduled.

"In the beginning, I was not glad to be part of their era," Djokovic said in reference to Federer and Nadal. Now, with 12 Grand Slams to his name, tying him with Australian great Roy Emerson for fourth on the career list and putting him within of Federer and Nadal, his attitude has changed. He said: "Later on I realized that everything happens for a reason. You're put in this position with a purpose, a purpose to learn and grow and evolve."

Photos: Courtesy of Google Images, 2016; Official Roland Garros poster art by Marc Desgrandchamps, 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

SIFF: Fostering community through cinema

The Seattle International Film Festival / A chance to see the world
from a different perspective.

The Seattle International Film Festival's mission is a simple but meaningful one: Create experiences that bring together people to discover extraordinary films from around the world. It is through the art of cinema, it believes, that we foster a community, one that is more informed, aware and alive.

The best of Sweden / A Man Called Ove
It is said that a great film is more than entertainment. It's a chance for moviegoers to see the world from a different perspective.

While in Seattle over the long holiday weekend visiting longtime friends, my wife and I and our friends experienced four extraordinary films from four different countries – Australia, Germany, Sweden and the U.S. – that were most enjoyable.

On Friday afternoon, we began with the 2015 Australian documentary film Women He's Undressed, in which Director Gillian Armstrong pays tribute to Academy Award-winning costume designer Orry-Kelly, a little-celebrated Australian hero of Hollywood's golden age who adorned the stars in such classics as Some Like It Hot, Casablanca, and An American in Paris, and was scandalously linked to Cary Grant as his former lover.

On Friday evening, we turned to the 2014 Austrian film Therapy for a Vampire for laughs. It's a dramatic comedy in which one night Sigmund Freud discovers a new patient on his couch, a mysterious count who has entered therapy because he can no longer bear his "eternally long" relationship with his wife, in this humorous mashup of vampire legend and neurotic obsessions. It was presented in German with English subtitles.

On Sunday afternoon, we sat front and center in the balcony of venerable Egyptian Theater on Capitol Hill, a classic movie house, where we saw Sweden's biggest hit of 2015, an endearing and crowd-pleasing dramatic comedy, En Man Som Heter Ove (A Man Called Ove). Rolf Lassgård stars as Ove, a grumpy, curmudgeonly old man, who finds his caustic view of the world put to the test when a new family moves in next door. The Swedish movie with English subtitles, which was adapted from the best-selling novel by Fredrik Backman, moved me to tears, and played upon the themes of unexpected friendship and love.

An intriguing spy thriller / Our Kind of Traitor
"A Swedish film in an Egyptian theater in America," a Tunisian Facebook friend messaged me on Sunday afternoon. "I like that," she wrote. I liked that, too.

Finally, on Sunday night, we were riveted by the spy thriller Our Kind of Traitor, based on the novel by bestselling author John Le Carré, starring Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris as a couple who wind up as international pawns in a chess game between the Russian Mafia and the British Secret Service. It also stars Stellan Skarsgård and Damian Lewis, and it is due for a summer release here in the U.S. I highly recommend it.

Each film we attended drew capacity audiences of well-informed and educated film goers – the first at Pacific Place, a modern cineplex in downtown Seattle, and the other three at the Egyptian in the city's Capitol Hill neighborhood, and tickets were reasonably priced at $13 for each film.

This year's festival, which continues through June 12, will present over 400 features, short films and documentaries gathered from more than 80 countries.

Looking back, for the duration of each film we saw, there was a fostering of community. Together, we laughed, we cried, we felt excited, we applauded. Attending the country's largest film festival – with more than 150,000 people attending over the 25-day event – was both special exciting, and I look forward to returning again.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

SFMOMA – Welcoming an old friend back to the City

Welcome back / The new-look SFMOMA has grown from five to 10 stories.

Last Thursday evening, my wife and I welcomed an old friend back to San Francisco. The San Francisco Museum of Modern ART (SFMOMA) reopened earlier this month after being closed for the past three years while undergoing a massive – and challenging – expansion project by Oslo and New York design firm Snøhetta. The new-look SFMOMA has grown from five to 10 stories. Dropping in on the newly transformed museum after work for a short visit before heading out for dinner and shopping, we delighted in seeing some favorite artworks and architectural features – including some of the gems from the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, considered to be one of the world's greatest.

The largest living wall in the U.S. greets visitors to SFMOMA.
From first glimpse, there's much to like about the new look and space of SFMOMA, including new galleries, expanded exhibition space, better lighting, greater access, art-filled public spaces, six terraces and sculptural staircases, which offer unique views out to the city.

As visitors step outside onto the main terrace, they are greeted by a giant living wall designed by Habitat Horticulture. It is part art, part landscape and it's the nation's largest public green wall of native plants.

Constellation  (1949) / From Alexander Calder: Motion Lab
We delighted in seeing the Alexander Calder: Motion Lab, which highlights Calder's restless innovation in bringing actual movement into art. We viewed About Time: Photography in a Moment of Change, a thematic exhibition which investigates how photography has profoundly reflected, inflected and transformed our perception of time through its 180-year history. We also saw Model Behavior, Snøhetta's initial sketches and models for the expanded SFMOMA building, located in a challenging and prominent urban site on Third Street, just south of Market Street.

A swarm of chaotic energy /
Studying Antony Gormley's "Quantum Cloud VIII"
Finally, upon ascending to Floor 5, we admired British Sculptors, in which more than forty years of diverse sculpture by artists who were born or reside in Great Britain was displayed.

My favorite was Antony Gormley's "Quantum Cloud VIII," a 1999 steel sculpture that was acquired by the Fisher Family in 2000. According to the sculptor, "Quantum Cloud VIII conceives of the body as a swarm of chaotic energy. A human figure seems to alternately materialize from and disintegrate into the cloud of metal bars."

Created between 1999 and 2009, Gormley's Quantum Cloud series reflects on "how the subatomic particles and energy that make up our bodies are integrated with those that compose the universe around us."

Alexander Calder /
Big Crinkly (1969)
There is much to see and enjoy in the 170,000 square feet of exhibition space, and as members, we look forward to going back often to see some of the things we missed during our initial visit. Some of the current exhibits include:

Paul Klee in Color, which includes paintings and watercolors by the Swiss-born modernist Paul Klee (1879-1940) that explore "his intuitive and theoretical approaches to color."

German Art after 1960, which is an overview of leading German artists such as Gerhard Richter, Georg Baslitz, Anselm Kiefer, and Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Typeface to Interface, which features graphic design from the Collection, "a trajectory of iconic type and the evolution of digital tools marking the rapid transformation of graphic design over the past sixty years."

San Francisco / A city that loves art and open spaces.
In its 81-year history, SFMOMA has established itself as a premier showcase for modern art – think Calder, Close, Kahlo, Kelly, Pollack and Warhol. One things certain: There's definitely a new a positive dedication to openness as the museum begins a new dialogue with San Francisco, a city that loves its art.

To read more about what art critics are saying about the new SFMOMA design:

Photos: All photos by Michael Dickens © 2016.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

I cannot live without books, either

More than 200 years ago, President Thomas Jefferson once said, "I cannot live without books." As one of our country's Founding Fathers, Jefferson was onto something – and today, I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment.

While I have a nice living room display and collection of books, it's become increasingly challenging to find and make good time to read books on a regular basis. Mind you, I enjoy reading – even if I have a reading list I will never finish. Every day, I spend time reading The New York Times and I keep up with the newsfeed of my Facebook. Still, I would like to spend more time with books. Doesn't matter if they are hardcover or softcover. A good book is something that's hard to put down.

Fortunately, each time I go to the gym – usually five times a week – I bring a book with me and spend 30 minutes riding a stationary bike with an open book to take my mind off of exercising. After all, it's been said, "Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body."

While reading a book is like taking a good journey, three books which I have recently read and recommend to everyone are:

Indentured / Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss
The rebellion against
the college sports cartel.
• Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA by Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss. The authors (one a columnist, the other a contributing writer for The New York Times) have long recognized that there is a widespread corruption that plagues big-time college sports. Indentured grew out of a controversial New York Times column Nocera wrote four years ago in which he asked pointblank: "How can the NCAA blithely wreck careers without regard to due process or common fairness? How can it act so ruthlessly to enforce rules that are so petty? Why won't anybody stand up to these outrageous violations of American values and American justice?"

As millions of high school seniors each year accept athletic scholarships to American colleges and universities to chase their dream of fame and fortune as "student-athletes," sports fans have finally come to realize that athletes in the two biggest college sports, men's basketball and football, "are little more than indentured servants." Their best interests are not being served by the NCAA, notes Nocera and Strauss.

They write: "For about 5 percent of top-division players, college ends with a golden ticket to the NFL or the NBA. But what about the overwhelming majority who never turn pro? They don't earn a dime from the estimated $13 billion generated annually by college sports – an ocean of cash that enriches schools, conferences, coaches, TV networks, and apparel companies ... everyone except those who give their blood and sweat to entertain the fans."

Indentured is a must read book for college sports fans – a real eye-opening drama and a good page-turner – and chapter after compelling chapter, it tells a story of a group of "rebels" – former athletes, coaches, marketers – who decided to fight for justice against the hypocrisy of the NCAA.

Saving Capitalism /
For the Many, Not the Few
By Robert B. Reich.
• Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert B. Reich is a book that's an intersection of economics and politics, "a myth-shattering breakdown of how the economic system that helped make America so strong is now failing us, and what it will take to fix it." Reich has served in three national administrations – he was Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton – and currently is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and senior fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economics. So, he knows his subject matter very well.

In Saving Capitalism, Reich "reveals how power and influence have created a new American oligarchy, a shrinking middle class, and the greatest income inequality and wealth disparity in eighty years." His writing throughout the book is both filled with passion and it's precisely argued.

Reich recalls how in the post-World II outlook, America created the largest middle class the world had ever seen. "Then, the economy generated hope. Hard work paid off, education was the means toward upward mobility, those who contributed most reaped the largest rewards, economic growth created more and better jobs, the living standards of most people improved throughout their working lives, our children would enjoy better lives than we had, and the rules of the game were basically fair," writes Reich.

He continues: "But today all these assumptions ring hollow. Confidence in the economic system has declined sharply. The apparent arbitrariness and unfairness of the economy have undermined the public's faith in its basic tenets. Cynicism abounds. To many, the economic and political systems seem rigged, the deck stacked in favor of those at the top. The threat to capitalism is no longer communism or fascism but a steady undermining of the trust modern societies need for grown and stability."

Robert Reich is one of the best economists in modern American history, according to U.S. Senator and Democratic Presidential contender Bernie Sanders. "He understands that there is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. This book is a road map on how to rebuild the middle class and fix a rigged economy that has been propped up by a corrupt campaign finance system," said Sanders.

I'd Know That Voice Anywhere /
By Frank Deford
A collection of his NPR commentaries.
• I'd Know That Voice Anywhere by Frank Deford. The longtime NPR Morning Edition commentator, who is also senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated and a senior correspondent on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, is one of America's most beloved sport commentators. Since 1980, Deford has recorded over 2,000 commentaries for NPR – "the serious, the foolish, the noble, the idiosyncratic; this game, that athletic." His latest book – his nineteenth – is a collection of literary sports commentaries that brings together a charming, insightful and wide-ranging look at athletes and the sports world.

"Being a writer, I never paid much attention to my voice," writes Deford in the forward for I'd Know That Voice Anywhere. "Since, when it came to interviewing, I was a primitive pen-and-notebook reporter, I rarely even heard myself speak on a tape recorder. ... Then, in the autumn of 1979, through impossibly serendipitous circumstances, National Public Radio approached me about doing a weekly sports commentary, and suddenly I had to direct that run-of-the-mill voice of mine into a microphone. But then, to my utter delight (shock and awe?), I soon found myself being complimented, advised that I possessed a distinct "radio voice." Where did you get that? people asked me, as if you could pick it out at an appliance store."

In I'd Know That Voice Anywhere, Deford muses everything sport from our continued love affair for Joe DiMaggio to the similarities between Babe Ruth and Winnie the Pooh. He rhapsodizes about how football reminds him of Venice, and even offers Super Bowl coverage in the form of a Shakespearian sonnet. Deford waxes poetically about the most popular sports of yesteryear such as boxing, golf and horse racing, and compares the Olympics to an independent movie comprised of foreign actors you've never heard of.

"Sports is, on the one level, mere amusement, but it is found in every culture," notes Deford, "and while it's not an absolute necessity for us, as eating and drinking and procreation are – sports is a card-carrying part of the human condition, in the same league with religion and drama and art and music. You can ignore sports, just as  you might choose not to care about other of those optional devotions, but sports does have a hefty place in our world, and I'm pleased to have been its troubadour on NPR. To voice sports may well be the next best thing to being out on the field itself, playing. And there's no risk of concussions."